The Power of Storytelling for Youth

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For decades, a nonprofit group called The Moth has produced workshops, events and a popular radio show where people tell transformative stories from their lives. And in 2012, the group started working with high schools, coaching students to turn their stories into polished orations.

This year the nonprofit has started sharing those student stories in a new spin-off podcast, called Grown.

“With Grown, we really wanted to take the probably thousands and thousands of stories at this point of young people who’ve gone through the Moth’s education program and give them a platform to be aired for a larger audience to listen to,” said Aleeza Kazmi, co-host of Grown.

Kazmi knows the storytelling process first-hand. When she was 17, she went through a Moth workshop at her high school in New York City. And she said it was formative for her own personal development and growth.

“People at all phases of their life are still figuring things out — from relationships with others, to relationships with their bodies, to their career. And I think that it’s really important for us just to be more honest about that because that can make the world a little bit more peaceful if we’re all just honest about the fact that we’re just not really having it all figured out yet,” she said.

For this week’s EdSurge Podcast, we connected with Kazmi, and with the leader of The Moth’s education efforts, Melissa Brown, to talk about what they’re learning from young storytellers, and why they believe storytelling should be taught in schools.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: Why does storytelling matter for young people?

Melissa Brown: We see these young people kind of join the team not knowing what they’re getting into. They might think that they’re there for a writing program or a poetry program, or they haven’t maybe heard of The Moth. And we start by really getting to know people, building trust, building community, and then we start playing games and eating snacks and sharing very low-stakes truths about ourselves. Storyteller agency is central, so whatever you want to share.

And then we kind of scaffold sneakily up to sharing longer true personal stories. And you just see these lights go on for people. For one thing, we have a structure around how we listen, that’s very much that, ‘You have these five minutes, no one is gonna interrupt you. We are all here to hear from you.’ And sometimes it’s the first time that these young people have ever had that happen. I think for adults, that often doesn’t happen. And there’s something incredibly brave and generous and extraordinary that can happen in that, just, knowledge that we care about you, about what you have to say. We’re interested in listening to you talk about your life and your experience and your perspective. That can build a lot of confidence. And we see young people really bloom in doing this work.

What is the method of making a Moth-style talk for young people?

Brown: Instead of sitting down with paper and pen and really drafting line by line like you might do an essay or a piece of fiction, we’re drafting socially. So we’re drafting in community with one another. And the magic of that is that everyone’s responsibility in that space is to help you to the best version of your story — your best version of your story, not anyone else’s best version. And we do that through an oral practice of telling the story over and over again, and then feeding back to that person what we heard, what we loved. And we always want a storyteller to know that at the end of their story, there will be a cloud of love. So we give them shout outs, we call them, just a detailed compliment. Something that we noticed in your story, something we liked, a line that particularly stood out to us, something that resonated or affected us emotionally.

Aleeza Kazmi: Yeah, just to paint the picture a bit of what that specific workshop looked like. It was people across 11th and 12th grade, and I was in my spring semester of my senior year. And so I was getting ready to go to college. The other students were people that I wouldn’t have really come across in my school otherwise. It almost felt like “The Breakfast Club” a little bit, like, you know, kids from different areas, different cliques, different groups in the school coming together in this basement room. It was cozy. There were snacks.

Like Melissa said, we’re really building that trust with one another. Like these students who were essentially strangers, we were strangers to one another, being, you know, given compliments or constructive feedback. … And I think it’s really different. Obviously you give feedback in creative writing classes or other things like that, but it’s all for the purpose of writing a paper or something. With this, it’s just about feeling good about what you’re sharing with the world. And that is something that I don’t think you’re ever given the opportunity to do as a young person.

How are the stories you’re hearing from young people different now than they were before and during the pandemic?

Kazmi: The way that young people are thinking about the world around them, and about how they navigate the world is so much more complex and insightful than I remember being at that age.

For season two of Grown, we just had an interview with a young storyteller, she’s 16. And my jaw was like being picked up from the floor left and right during that conversation because the conversation was about bullying, which is a heavy topic. She’d experienced bullying. But the compassion she had for the person who was bullying her — thinking about, ‘Oh, well what is that person going through? And what kind of world are they navigating?’ It just made me feel so hopeful and proud of the young people today. Knowing that they’ve gone through something as traumatic as a pandemic, having lost family members, potentially, having their life uprooted, I think has made them more resilient.

What I’m hearing on Grown is that young people are really, really compassionate and also have a lot of grace with themselves, which I think is really important when you’re navigating your teen years.

Hear the complete interview on The EdSurge Podcast.



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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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